I wrote and published this article on LinkedIn in November 15th, 2015 but due to the recent events I thought it was relevant.
Listening to a well-respected British channel last night the news’ journalist referred to the 8 suicide-bombers as ‘psychopaths’. It stuck in my mind and I was feeling uncomfortable with this absurd statement. Where did THAT come from? What’s the evidence he’s basing this statement on? These people are not psychopaths … or at least … not all of them. We are so fast to put a label on things and people that is scary… so, I did a little research to back up what I am about to write.
It is for sure a terrifying phenomenon, but what makes these people who are often teenagers take other people’s lives and then take their own? We are very quick to term anything that does not make sense to us as ‘mad’ or ‘insane’.
First of all, according to sources, terrorist groups have a rigorous screening process for the mentally imbalanced, simply because they pose potential security and confidentiality risk. From their perspective, this is not considered ‘suicide’ which would be weak and selfish, but it’s rather considered to be a ‘martyrdom or self-sacrifice in the service of Allah’. They emphasize the altruistic nature of their acts, convincing themselves that this is the right thing. Yes, our mind DOES have that power… to convince ourselves that something IS the right thing… It’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’ in psychology for those interested, or ‘the little lies we tell ourselves’. Also, it is important to understand that these acts go beyond their individual behavior, it’s about a collective identity which is serving a whole group of people with such strong beliefs that drive their behavior. So, there are many factors (society, culture, etc.) that contribute and explain this phenomenon.
Typically, most suicide-bombers are late adolescents or young men between 17-22 (even though most recently young women seem to be joining as well). This is a period of one’s life characterized by experimentation and identity formation, hence, being particularly vulnerable to influential leaders with radical views. Would that be enough? Of course not, as I said a myriad of other variables do play a role (family and hence upbringing, society, religion, etc.).
Treating them as psychopaths is misleading to say the least. Also, we would be educating the public about what psychopathology is in a completely wrong way. One of the key characteristics of psychopathy is lack of emotions, whether positive or negative, which is definitely not the case with the suicide-bombers. The intelligence services would be much better off using psychological expertise to try and really understand these people’s minds and not treat them as ‘mad’ or insane’, but instead view the world from their eyes and perspective, so that we could all live in a safer world one day.